Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated the court in which Freundel will receive his sentence Friday. This version has been corrected.
This week, a D.C. Superior Court judge is scheduled to hand down a penalty for Barry Freundel, a powerful Orthodox rabbi who for years secretly videotaped his female followers as they prepared to submerge in the mikvah, a ritual bath. But in the Orthodox world where Freundel was once a giant, the fallout of his crimes will continue unspooling.
Some of the hundreds who studied or worshiped with Freundel have stopped going to the mikvah, a ritual that is considered so important in Judaism that women are commanded to use it monthly before sharing any physical intimacy with their husbands.
Others who converted with Freundel are terrified that their status as Jews will forever be in question in their law-focused communities. Some people have stopped going to synagogue. Others suffer nightmares in which they are spied upon — and feel complicit.
“This man was Judaism embodied for many of us, we must reconstruct our faith absent his titanic influence. Some members are experiencing deep crises of faith,” reads a group statement by a dozen of the hundreds of converts Freundel mentored over the years. “It was as though he took G-d away from me,” one wrote, using a traditional, respectful way Jews refer to God.
The statement is part of a package for the judge, which also includes a memo prosecutors filed Friday asking that the rabbi serve a 17-year sentence. It mentions a woman fleeing domestic abuse whom Freundel offered shelter — and then videotaped at the safe house. It also referred to the rabbi’s secret videotaping of sex with women who weren’t his wife, even as he railed publicly against others he believed threatened traditional marriage.
“Was it about his power over us at our most vulnerable? Our stomachs turn. Disgust, embarrassment, shame, and anger continually wash over us,” the memo quotes a victim as saying about the 64-year-old.
On Monday, Freundel’s attorneys asked for no jail time to be served, saying the rabbi had helped many despite his crimes.
Six months after Freundel was arrested, some say they believe that the scandal — one of the biggest in global Judaism — will lead to reforms, while others fear that critical topics will go unexplored.
The case has prompted debate regionally, nationally and internationally — Freundel was a leader in key Jewish organizations at all levels — about the treatment of converts and about women’s leadership in Orthodox Judaism.
It has forced members of Kesher Israel, the prominent Georgetown synagogue he had long led, to consider why they gave such authority to a man viewed by many as possessing a towering intellect but a cold heart. His arrest, members of Kesher Israel say, has given them a chance for a fresh start — assuming Kesher can survive financially amid pending civil suits.
It has also left some of Freundel’s many onetime admirers confused about how to treat him, their teacher-turned-criminal.
Known as an expert scholar and an opinionated cleric, Freundel would have no doubt been the person many called to ask such questions. But now the rabbi is a pariah.
“I would reach out to him, but what would that say — that I want to maintain a relationship with someone who has done such evil? But the loss to me and to many who relied on him is forever,” said Fran Kritz, who was a congregant at Kesher and an early friend of Freundel’s when he arrived in Washington. He was an important supporter of hers through many traumas, from a miscarriage to the deaths of her parents. Like most people close to Freundel, Kritz hasn’t contacted him since his arrest, but she sometimes plays out scenarios when she could.
“I think every so often, when his mother dies, it will be a chance to see him and comfort him,” said Kritz.
Many find the Freundel scandal difficult to discuss publicly, and some interviewed for this article did so on the condition that their names not be published. Judaism teaches that speaking negatively of others — or even listening to negative talk or gossip — can be sinful, and the D.C. Orthodox community is small.
Freundel’s arrest has highlighted the treatment of converts, who in Judaism sometimes feel not fully accepted and often keep their status private.
The Washington-area conversion court, which Freundel ran with another rabbi, who was also a personal trainer, has been overhauled since October to provide more oversight.
The Rabbinical Council of America, the world’s biggest group of Modern Orthodox leaders and a body in which Freundel was once a leader, created an investigative committee aimed at improving the regional court systems for converts. In the next month or so, it is set to issue a report of recommendations, although some RCA watchers are skeptical that there will be substantive change.
Freundel’s case has also amplified discussions that have been going on for some time within Modern Orthodoxy, the more liberal part of Orthodox Judaism, about the role of women in power. Since Freundel’s arrest, some prominent Modern Orthodox rabbis have issued opinions about the ritual of conversion — when people submerge themselves in the mikvah, a moment Jewish law requires to be witnessed by a panel of rabbis — and suggested that perhaps a woman could be present or that the rabbis could simply listen for, but not watch any part of, the woman submerging. In Orthodox Judaism, women cannot become rabbis.
Freundel was considered among the most authoritative and powerful Orthodox American rabbis in the area of conversion. He was also a liaison to Israel’s religious leaders on the controversial and political question of who should be considered a Jew.
Many Orthodox Jews will be watching Freundel’s sentencing Friday, hoping for some healing.
Freundel has publicly vanished since his arrest.
People whisper about being in touch with him. In the defense memo, Freundel’s attorney, Jeffrey Harris, quoted supportive letters that he said the judge had received, but without names.
“Many great men, and you are still great in our eyes, have overcome personal pitfalls to come back,” read one quote Harris included.
The memo said that Freundel goes to therapy weekly and that “several groups” have asked him to conduct small classes on the Torah and other Jewish subjects, which he does several times a week for free. Freundel gave his wife, Sharon, a religious divorce, but they remain married civilly.
For a man who wrote 55 books and articles, lectured at places from Princeton and Yale to the Aspen Institute and Congress, this is a steep fall.
“There is a need to ostracize someone like this. While Judaism has a process of forgiveness and repair in such cases, it’s not instant,” said one D.C.-area rabbi. “There’s a notion in Judaism of someone in the community who becomes contaminated. They do return, but not just because they feel like it. I think he has to go through some process of reflection, treatment and repair.”
Orthodox Jews vary on what they want to happen Friday, as Judaism doesn’t clearly embrace incarceration simply for punishment. If someone is a danger, that’s one thing, said the rabbi, but “by punishing someone with incarceration, they aren’t allowed to grow.”
Also working on repair is Kesher, the historic Georgetown synagogue Freundel led from 1989 until last fall. He had been a divisive figure at Kesher, a mix of longtime, older members and many transient, often young Washington types who come in and out with different administrations. Although Freundel was seen as a good match intellectually for a congregation with many respected political and policy figures, some considered him a physically imposing bully, intolerant of those who challenged or disagreed with him, mostly uninterested in routine pastoral care and often on the road.
In recent months, Kesher has held forums for members to discuss Freundel, his crimes and what a future congregation might look like.
Kesher “will no longer look blindly upon its spiritual leader. No matter how much they revere him, they will not revere him blindly,” said one longtime member. “But what’s remarkable is how much this did not change the community. We needed to change certain reforms and systems, but this wasn’t a sin of the congregation — it was a sin of the rabbi.”
But Jay Michaelson, who attended Kesher, suggested earlier this year that Freundel’s global profile hindered a congregation impressed by status. People should have questioned the unpastoral pastor, he said.
There were “suspicions that should have been raised. But the self-reinforcing loops of elite power — X likes him, X is powerful, therefore I should like him — blinded those entrusted to keep watch,” Michaelson wrote in a widely-shared piece on the Jewish site the Forward.
To current members, Kesher is moving on. On Purim, a carnival-like spring holiday, Kesher usually features a skit lampooning the rabbi and other top figures. With the scandal still fresh in March, instead of a skit, a child silently took the stage — in an elephant mask. He sat there, blatantly and wordlessly, as someone performed a song. As the last line was sung, he stood and walked off.
The elephant in the room was gone.
“When that elephant walked out of the room,” the member said, “it was a real moment. We are moving on.”
But how? To the many who considered Freundel their rabbi, questions endure. What would justice mean in this case? How should people look upon the thousands of opinions and pieces of advice about Judaism he offered in the past? What would he say about the paradox of his life?
“Watched some of my wedding video today,” one woman was quoted in Harris’s Friday memo as writing on a public message board. In it, she saw Freundel talking with her and her groom about their Jewish wedding contract.
“That’s the nice guy I remember. . . . Is it normal that I’m still confused?”